Many young people of the modern day will grow up - like the young people of the ancient church - seeing deacons at Mass. Most older Catholics, on the other hand, grew up with the understanding that being a deacon was simply a (short) stepping-stone on the way to becoming a priest. For them, the re-introduction of permanent deacons following the Second Vatican Council may well have raised a few questions. For both people with either kind of experience a brief introduction to permanent deacons may be helpful.
It’s only human nature that, when we see something different, we look for similarities with what we already know. And when people are told that a Deacon can baptise, preach, and lead weddings and funerals (where there is no mass involved), it’s difficult not to see something of the role of the priest.
Charisms, Gifts, Services
“There are varieties of gifts, but the same spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord.”1 Corinthians Ch.12
The reality though is that, whilst there is some overlap, the ministries of the priest and the deacon are fundamentally different. They have different charisms. The charism of the deacon is marked by a duty to service. In fact, Pope Paul VI said that deacons should be the driving force of the Church’s service - the animator.
Deacons were present as a separate ministry from the very earliest time of the Church up until the twelfth century. The Church’s first martyr, Saint Stephen, in fact was given the task of service. Other deacons followed him to sainthood, but the most famous was Saint Francis of Assisi in the twelfth century. For various reasons, being a deacon eventually became just part of the journey to becoming a priest. The Order of Diaconate, as it’s sometimes known, was re-instituted by the Second Vatican Council in order to increase the Church’s visibility in the world. Typically a deacon has an ordinary job (like Saint Paul), a wife, and children - but not always, there are single deacons as well.
So deacons often work with people in prison (e.g. as prison chaplains), the homeless, refugees, and visit the sick. They should also be committed to tackling the underlying causes of the problems of society. The problems that affect those most in need. At ordination deacons are told to, ‘teach what you believe, and practice what you teach.’ In reality, the practice of trying to live as servant should also inform the teaching. When we come back to the liturgy it is these two things that are important. The deacon doesn’t preside - that is the job of the priest. Instead his task is to serve and to teach.